Kanji: 三

1. Meaning:


figure_1_kanji etymology_san

Figure 1. 古文 (ancient) form of 三. Oracle bone script form

2. Readings:

  • Kunyomi (訓読み): み, みっ.つ, み.つ
  • Onyomi (音読み):サン, ゾウ
  • Japanese names: か, さ, さい, さえ, さぶ, ざ, ざえ, ざぶ, そう, ぞ, ただ, みつ, みん, も, や
  • Chinese reading: sān
  • 3. Etymology

    三 belongs to the 指事文字 (しじもじ, shijimoji, i.e. set of characters expressing simple abstract concepts). 三 imitates the shape of three long and thin objects, such as small twigs used as an ancient calculation method. It is not a pictograph of three extended fingers, as many sources erroneously suggest.

    Researching the etymology of 三 I realised how much in common it has with my wife. Such a tiny and inconspicuous phenomena, but what a character!

    figure_2_kanji etymology_san

    Figure 2. Ink rubbing of kinbun (金文, きんぶん, i.e. “text on metal”)form of the character 三

    In Shuowen Jiezi (說文解字, pinyin: Shūowén Jiězì, i.e. “Explaining Simple [Characters] and Analyzing Compound Characters”) from the 2nd century C.E., compiled by Xu Shjen (許慎, pinyin: Xǔ Shèn, ca. 58 C.E. – ca. 147 C.E.), a philologist of the Han dynasty (漢朝, 206 B.C. – 220 C.E.) we read: “數名。天地人之道也。” (pinyin: shǔ míng. Tiān dì rén zhī dào yě), i.e. “三 is a number. A principle (reasoning) of Heaven Earth and Man”. 天地人 are known as San Cai (三才, pinyin: Sān Cái, i.e. “All Three Powers, i.e. Heaven, Earth and Man”, respectively), also known as Three Extremes (三極, pinyin: sān jí), where 三 stands for 天 (Heaven), 地 (Earth)and 人 (Man), and 才 symbolizes the dynamics ruling those three phenomena. Three then, is a divinatory number, which is hardly surprising as all other numbers are imbued with magical meanings (see here the article on the etymology of the character 九 (きゅう, kyū, i.e. “nine”).

    figure_2_2_kanji etymology_san

    figure 2.2. Ink rubbing of the great seal script (大篆, だいてん, daiten)of the archaic form of the character 三

    三 is also closely related to the divinatory system of 64 hexagrams, introduced in the Book of Changes, also known as Five Classics (易経, pinyin: Yì jīng) whose original text was written on bamboo slips around the mid-3rd century B.C. It is one of the oldest Chinese classics in existence. To read more regarding the Book of Changes and its relation to Chinese characters, please refer to the article on the etymology of the character 校 (こう, kō, correction; exam; printing; proof; school; archaic: assemble, join [wood], etc.)

    In Lao Tsu’s (老子, Lǎo Zǐ, ca. 500B.C.) Dao De Jing (道徳経, pinyin: Dào dé jīng), chapter 42, we find the following passage: “道生一。一生二。二生三。三生萬物。萬物負陰而抱陽,沖氣以為和。” (pinyin: Dào shēng yī. Yīshēng èr. Èr shēng sān. Sān shēng wànwù. Wànwù fù yīn ér bào yáng. Chōng qì yǐwéi hé.) It means: “The Dao (Tao) begot one (一). One begot two (二). Two begot all living things (三). All living things bear the element Yin (陰, Chinese: yīn) and embrace the element Yang (陽, Chinese: yáng). Harmony is achieved by the combination of all natures”.

    The above clearly proves that 三 cannot be a character of pictographic origin, rather, it is a representation of a complex concept which reaches deep into the occult and divinatory beliefs of the ancient Chinese people.

    figure_3_kanji etymology_san

    Figure 3. Ink rubbing of the clerical script (隷書, れいしょ, reisho) form of the character 三

    To further delve into the meaning of 三, I call your attention to the etymology of the character 王 (おう, ō, i.e. “king”, “ruler”). According to the work of philosopher Dong Zhongshu (董仲舒, Dǒng Zhòngshū, 179-104 B.C.) of the early Han dynasty (漢朝, 206 B.C. – 220 C.E.), titled Chunqiu Fanlu (春秋繁露, pinyin: Chūnqiū Fánlù, i.e. “Rich Dew of Spring and Autumn [period]”), the shape of the character 王 has a symbolic meaning. The Three Powers (三才) symbolized by three horizontal lines are connected by one vertical stroke, an allegory of the unification of those powers and the taking control over them by a ruler.

    A given Chinese character may have myriad forms, and they often differ significantly from one another. On the other hand, a few different characters (of separate etymology) may bear identical meaning.

    There are more kanji with the same meaning as 三. The archaic form (so called kobun (古文, こぶん, i.e. “ancient writing”, found in Shang (商朝, 1600 – 1046 B.C.) and early Zhou dynasty texts) of 三 is 弎, and it is its traditional form (正字, せいじ, seiji, lit “proper character”). The character 参, which has two further variants: 參 and 叅, has the same reading (and meaning) as 三 or 弎, and it is used in legal documents. Please note that 参 has a completely different etymology than 三, thus it is not a kanji variant (異体字, いたいじ, itaiji) of 三. (Please also see the article on the etymology of the character 一 (いち, ichi, i.e. “one”, of which the archaic form is 弌).

    figure_4_kanji etymology_san

    Figure 4. Cursive script (草書, そうしょ, sōsho) of 三.

    4. Selected historical forms of 三.

    Figure 1. Kobun (古文, こぶん, i.e. “ancient form”) of 三. Oracle bone script (甲骨文, こうこつぶん, kōkotsubun) from ca. 1600 B.C.

    Figure 2. Ink rubbing of kinbun (金文, きんぶん, i.e. “text on metal”)form of the character 三, found on one of the bronze vessel named Yu Ding (盂鼎, pinyin: Yú Dǐng), which was cast during the Western Zhou dynasty (西周, 1027 – 771 B.C.).

    Figure 2.2. Ink rubbing of the great seal script (大篆, だいてん, daiten)of the archaic form of the character 三, i.e. 弎, found in the Shuowen Jiezi (說文解字, pinyin: Shūowén jiězì, i.e. “Explaining Simple [Characters] and Analyzing Compound Characters”) from the 2nd century C.E., compiled by Xu Shen (許慎, Xǔ Shèn, ca. 58 C.E. – ca. 147 C.E.), a philologist of the Han dynasty, found under a section entitled Guwen (古文, pinyin: gǔwén) devoted to the character forms from the Warring States period (戰國時代, pinyin: Zhànguó shídài, 475 – 221 B.C.).

    figure_5_kanji etymology_san

    Figure 5. Standard script (楷書, かいしょ, kaisho) of 三.

    Figure 3. Ink rubbing of the clerical script form (隷書, れいしょ), form of the character 三 found on the stele Cao Quan (曹全碑, pinyin: Cáo quán bēi), Han dynasty (漢朝, 206 B.C. – 220 C.E.), 185 C.E.

    Figure 4. Cursive script (草書, そうしょ, sōsho) of 三. From one of the calligraphy works by Wang Xun (王珣, Wáng Xún, 349 – 400) of the Jin dynasty (晉朝, 265 – 420 C.E.).

    Figure 5. Standard script (楷書, かいしょ, kaisho) of 三. From the stele Wen yan bo (溫彥博碑, pinyin: Wēn yàn bó bēi) by a brilliant Tang dynasty (唐朝, 618 – 907 C.E) calligrapher Ouyang Xun (欧陽詢, Ōuyáng Xún, 557 – 641 C.E.), 637 C.E.

    figure_6_kanji etymology_san

    Figure 6. Semi-cursive script (行書, ぎょうしょ, gyōsho) of 三

    Figure 6. Ink rubbing of semi-cursive (行書, ぎょうしょ, gyōsho) of 三 found in the calligraphy work compilation entitled Ji Wang sheng jiao xu (集王聖教序, pinyin: Jí Wáng shèng jiào xù), created on the order of the Emperor Taizong of Tang (唐太宗, pinyin: Táng Tàizōng), of the Tang dynasty (唐朝, 618 – 907). Characters for this work were chosen from masterpieces of Wang Xizhi (王羲之, pinyin: Wáng Xīzhī, 303 – 361), often referred to as the Sage of Calligraphy (書聖; pinyin: shū shèng), who lived during the Jin dynasty (晉朝, 265 – 420 C.E.).

    5. Useful phrases

  • 三回 (さんかい, sankai) – three times
  • 三分 (さんぷん, sanpun) – three minutes
  • 三日 (みっか, mikka) – third day of the month
  • 三月 (さんがつ, sangatsu) – March
  • 三日月 (みかづき, mikazuki) – crescent moon
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    Ponte Ryūrui

    Ponte Ryuurui (品天龍涙, ぽんてりゅうるい, Ponte Ryūrui) is the pen name of Piotr Ponte L. Sypniewski. He began studying calligraphy in 2001 under Japanese Master Kajita Esshuu (梶田越舟, かじたえっしゅう, 1938 – present).


    1. Yukiko on 15/01/2012 at 14:46

      Hi, I enjoy your articles very much. They are very detailed and also I can see your passion towards calligraphy.
      Will you write articles in Japanese too in the future? It is a little bit difficult for us to understand fully what you tell. Since this is very wonderful articles, I would like to share with my friends. This website carries many things that even we, Japanese, don’t know. 本当に素晴らしいウェブサイトです!今後のご活躍を楽しみにしています。

      • Ponte Ryūrui on 15/01/2012 at 17:32

        Hi Yukiko,

        Thak you so much for your kind comments. The etymology articles are quite difficuly indeed, but they are not any easier in Japanese. I base my research on magnificent books of 白川 静, who is possibly the most outstanding authority on Chinese characters in Japan. His knowledge of the ancient Chinese literature, wide linguistic background, and profound understanding of the subject are mind blowing. His books are difficult to read even for Japanese scholars. What I do is add more information as I go, and expand condensed infomation that he provides, adding a a lot more background and details to make the articles more understandable for those readers who are not familiar with East Asian calligraphy or Chinese writing system. Books of Shirakawa Shizuka are quite laconic and without further exlanations the information would remain coded. This additional research takes tens of hours for each article.

        In regards to other articles we plan on introducing various artists on our site (including Japanese) so I reckon it is highly possible that we will have articles in Japanese and English, or other languages too.

        You need to understand that writing an in-depth article takes a vast amount of time (for instance this article took 35h of 4 people {including editing and IT} to post), and on top of writing I need to find time for studying and work, so at the moment I simply could not afford to spend more time on translating into Japanese.

        On a side note, your English is perfect, so you should have no problems with reading the text 🙂

        Many thanks for reading once again,

        Best wishes,

    2. Yukiko on 17/01/2012 at 07:41

      Thank you for the reply 🙂
      Sorry, my English was wrong. I was going to ask if you have a plan on publishing those wonderful articles in Japanese.
      Anyway, keep us updated!

    3. Ponte Ryuurui on 17/01/2012 at 23:41

      I told you already that your English is great. Language is for communication and there is no such thing as perfect command of language. We understand each other and thats the most important thing.

      Well, I would love to do what you suggest, but at the moment I seriously have no time left to do it. As I said, the research and my own studies of calligraphy take me so much time, that I am constantly running short of it. Perhaps in the future. I do not even translate them into Polish, and that is my native language. This year will be extremely busy for me, as I have to finish rewriting my book about calligraphy. This will come on top of other tasks during my busy day. If you know someone that can volunteer and translate my articles into Japanese, this would help us a lot. I would need to check the translations anyway, as there are many calligraphic terms used, which may not be known even to professional translators.


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